In each season of Panoply Media's You Must Remember This, host Karina Longworth meticulously peels apart the myths holding up pillars of Hollywood history, and replaces legend with fact. The podcast's most recent season, which premiered on July 3, focuses on an individual who, in his own twisted way, purported to do the same thing. In 1959, experimental director Kenneth Anger published the book Hollywood Babylon, which claimed to uncover the truth behind the Hollywood's most famous figures. Unfortunately, many of Anger's gossipy, falsity-ridden retellings merely perpetuated inaccuracies.
"My goal for this season is to take some of these stories told in Hollywood Babylon, and through my research, figure out what he got right and what he got wrong, and how he uses different linguistic techniques to give you impressions that can sometimes be more powerful than what he’s actually saying," Longworth told Refinery29 over the phone.
We spoke to Longworth about Hollywood Babylon, fake news in Hollywood, and how this thrilling season of You Must Remember This connects to today.
Refinery29: So, for the uninitiated: What is Hollywood Babylon?
Karina Longworth: "Kenneth Anger, a cult figure in the experimental art film world and in gay culture, found himself in Paris in the 1950s, kind of broke. He got work at a French film magazine writing stories about Old Hollywood which he’d heard through the grapevine growing up in L.A. Each one is basically like: 'They had a persona, but this is what was really going on. This is the sex, and the drugs that was going on behind the scenes.’ His version of these stories are oftentimes the version that people recall.
"Anger published them as a book called Hollywood Babylon, which first released in the United States in 1965 but was banned right away. It wasn’t widely available in the U.S. until 1975, at which point it really fit into the culture. Post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, there was a suspicion and skepticism about icons and American institutions. The thing is, a lot of his stories are not quite accurate. There’s a lot of exaggeration and embellishment. Some of the facts are just wrong. Sometimes he gets the bare bones of the story right, but his slant on it gives an impression that isn’t always fair and isn’t always accurate."
Can you give an example of an urban legend he legitimized? Something a person on the street would think as truth?
"In his story on Clara Bow, a silent era actress, [he claimed] she was basically very slutty and that she once had an orgy with an entire college football team. Later biographers found evidence that this was not true at all. This kind of thing – he’ll take a grain of truth and then he’ll embellish it."
What interested you in bringing these stories back today? Was there anything in today’s cultural climate that made you think Hollywood Babylon would be an interesting slice of history to revisit?
"I think the whole idea of fake news (which in itself is a nebulous concept) is a real plague on our culture right now. This idea that the same events can be twisted by different sides to have different meanings. It’s not just Kenneth Anger. It’s not just Hollywood Babylon. The whole of Hollywood historiography has that sort of problem. In some sense, I think that Hollywood invented fake news. A lot of the original biographies of stars, most of the original reporting of that industry, was all manipulated by the studios and their publicity departments. Just trying to figure out what was really true, especially about these stories that take place in 1917 or 1922, is very difficult. The best that I can do is be very transparent and say, ‘These are the sources that are available. This is what they say. This is what I think. I’m not sure.’"
When it came to these famous figures, the creation of the myth is more important than the actual facts.
"A lot of this season is about this period in the early 1920s when these scandals happened that, for the first time, the studios couldn’t control what was being said. Stuff like the Fatty Arbuckle scandle, the death of Olive Thomas, who was a silent star who died mysteriously in a Paris hotel room. As these scandals were accumulating, Hollywood had this huge public relations problem because there were groups like Catholic groups and women’s groups — the same political machine that had enacted Prohibition — who were trying to interfere with the film industry and either ban movies, put some government regulation on them. The studios basically had to create a completely new public relations machine to deal with that and protect their ability to keep doing business. That’s when they start to bring in the idea of self censorship. They hired this guy, Will Hays, to come in and eventually craft what was known as the Hays Code which controlled content in movies from the 1930s to the 1960s."
Ah, so that’s how the Hays Code came about.
There's a whole episode about him in this season. Basically, more than the first half of the season is about these scandals and why it was necessary for him to show up.
How has the Hollywood scandal evolved over time? Do we still have scandals to the same scale as the scandals back then?
“Things are very different because performers are not under the same type of contracts that they were to studios. Back then, the studios were controlling their lives. Now, performers are generally free agents. They might be on a long-form contract for a TV show, but it’s really different in terms of how their employers control information and force them into certain personas. Vince Vaughn can get arrested for drunk driving, and we find out about it. Back then, we would not have found out about something like that.”
It seems like a book like this could be potentially dangerous, especially if it has details that aren't true.
“It certainly spread falsehoods and misconceptions about the people in the book. I discovered the book when I was 20 years old and in college. I had this idea that it was truer than other books. One of the reasons it gets away with that is the stories are interspersed with these photographs, and some of them are crime scene photos. There are photos of stars dead on their bathroom floor. There are photos of elderly Judy Garland with no makeup. The imagery is having this veneer of accuracy and authenticity. It makes it seem like you’re seeing the real shit. Once you actually start doing research it’s easy to see mistakes — silly mistakes, like if he’d had access to IMDb he would’ve been easy to fix — but then when you think about the ethos of the book, would he have? Would he have wanted to fix them? The whole aesthetic of the book is more gossipy than that. You’re getting the cocktail party anecdote rather than the footnoted version. There are no footnotes in Hollywood Babylon.”